Following the 11 rounds of bidding organized by the Nigerian Communications Commission, NCC in concert with the Federal Ministry of Communications and Digital Economy, during which Mafab Communications Ltd and MTN Nigeria Plc emerged the two successful winners of the 3.5 gigahertz (GHz) Spectrum auction for the deployment of Fifth Generation (5G) technology, Nigeria has also found an anchor in her quest for a vibrant digital economy and robust broadband services throughout the country.
The event, which took place at the Transcorp Hilton Hotel, Abuja, on Monday, December 13, 2021 witnessed the two companies, MAFAB and MTN, being picked out of among the three companies, namely MTN, Airtel and MAFAB Communications Limited, that had qualified for the auction. The three companies had also participated in a mock auction held on Friday, December 10, 2021, preparatory to the Main Auction conducted on Monday, December 13, 2021.
Also recently, NCC, very seamlessly as usual, organised capacity building workshops for media executives in the northern and southern divides of the country, as part of efforts to support their continuous professional development and in anticipation of 2022 rollout of Fifth Generation (5G) network in Nigeria. The workshops, themed “5G Deployment and the Next Level of Nigeria’s Development,’ provided an avenue for media stakeholders to have better knowledge and understanding on potentials of the new technology.
However, amid the various benefits and advantages that the 5G deployment undoubtedly has to offer to Nigerians in general and the Nigerian Information Communication and Technology, ICT, space in particular, significant concern has emerged over the possible impact on health and safety arising from potentially much higher exposure to radiofrequency (RF) electromagnetic radiation arising from the fifth-generation network. There have been questions surrounding the effect that RF signals have on the human body, and more specifically on incidents of brain cancer. We still remember, sometime in 2020, how some voices behind the spread of the fear about the 5G deployment have also linked it with the present novel pandemic COVID-19 while some claim it could lead to cancer while some others believe that 5G technology is a ploy by the western world to reduce the population of the third world countries including Nigeria- the most populous black nation in Africa. Worse still, pictures once went viral of aggrieved citizens of some countries, including Chinese, destroying 5G masts and other associated network equipment, as protest against the deployment of the network.
Furthermore, several misinformation and falsities have been peddled about 5G technology. There was an article that claimed that the deployment of 5G network would cause human beings to be diabetics and that birds would start to die and the entire world would be changed. As a matter of fact, when several birds and sparrows died in The Hague between October and November 2018, a young Scientist was reported to have linked the occurrence to the 5G network whereas detailed research conducted by the Dutch Wildlife Health Centre, Eramus University and Ghent University discovered that the death of birds was caused by poisoning. Even this writer has visited communities where the Community Development Association (CDA) was clamouring for a relocation of a BTS site on the basis of their unfounded fears that the eventual deployment of 5G network would worsen the rate of their women giving birth to short babies!
And then recently, the newspapers suddenly became awash with shock waves. According to reports, the chief executives of America’s largest airlines, in a letter addressed to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and other U.S. government officials, highlighted the risk of “economic calamity” should Verizon and AT&T proceed with deployment of the new technology before the necessary upgrades and changes have been made to aviation equipment. They issued a warning about a “catastrophic disruption” to travel and shipping operations if telecommunication companies should deploy their 5G technology as planned without limiting the technology near U.S. airports, causing AT&T and Verizon to voluntarily postpone turning on a limited amount of towers around certain airports. It should be noted that Verizon and AT&T had twice-delayed the launch of their new C-Band 5G service due to warnings from airlines and aircraft manufacturers concerned that the new system might interfere with the devices planes use to measure altitude. The letter, signed by the chief executives of American Airlines, JetBlue Airways, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines, Southwest Airlines, FedEx Express, UPS Airlines, among others, reads: “We are writing with urgency to request that 5G be implemented everywhere in the country except within the approximate two miles of airport runways as defined by the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) on January 19, 2022…To be blunt, the nation’s commerce will grind to a halt…Immediate intervention is needed to avoid significant operational disruption to air passengers, shippers, supply chain and delivery of needed medical supplies,” they wrote. Also, in another statement, United Airlines said, “The federal government’s current 5G rollout plan will have a devastating impact on aviation, negatively affecting an estimated 1.25 million United passengers, at least 15,000 flights and much-needed goods and tons of cargo traveling through more than 40 of the largest airports in the country annually.”
But in a swift reaction, the FAA released a brief statement apparently seeking to douse concerns about the 5G rollout’s impact on aviation without declaring any concrete next steps in the process. “With safety as its core mission, the FAA will continue to ensure that the traveling public is safe as wireless companies deploy 5G,” the agency said. “The FAA continues to work with the aviation industry and wireless companies to try to limit 5G-related flight delays and cancellations.”
There is no doubt about the enormous benefits that the fifth generation of wireless communication offers, ranging from enhanced mobile broadband, ultra-reliable low latency and speed, downloading or uploading one gigabit of data per second which will facilitate several emerging technologies, including Internet of Things (IoT), Machine-to-Machine communication, among others. All told, 5G deployment will impact different sectors of the economy, including agriculture, e-commerce, e-banking, Information and Communication Technology (ICT), education, healthcare, tourism and hospitality, security, entertainment including the music and movie industries and other aspects of Digital Nigeria.
According to the World Health Organization (W.H.O), “Currently, exposure from 5G infrastructures at around 3.5 GHz is similar to that from existing mobile phone base stations. With the use of multiple beams from 5G antennas, exposure could be more variable as a function of location of the users and their usage. Given that the 5G technology is currently at an early stage of deployment, the extent of any change in exposure to radiofrequency fields is still under investigation…To date, and after much research performed, no adverse health effect has been causally linked with exposure to wireless technologies. Health-related conclusions are drawn from studies performed across the entire radio spectrum but, so far, only a few studies have been carried out at the frequencies to be used by 5G.”
That said, it is difficult to lose sight of the enormous benefits that the 5G roll out hold in stock for the populace. Speaking at a public lecture, the Vice Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), Professor Umar Danbatta, assured that the technology would not have any harmful effects on people’s health, adding that the technology has nothing negative to do about our health. According to him, the 5G mobile technology deployment would give Nigerians the opportunity to enjoy telemedicine while it would also facilitate accelerated gigabytes that would in turn enhance massive internet benefits which include high-speed trains, lifeline and ultra-reliable communications in telemedicine and natural disasters that would deliver successful services using critical applications. He said that while some Nigerians are still expressing fears and doubts about the safety of the 5G technology, some advance nations of the world are already operating electric cars and contemplating 6G deployment, adding that the global impact of Fourth Generation (4G) technology brought about increase in mobile usage and network performance, and that 5G technology will leverage on this momentum, bringing substantial network improvements, including higher connection speed, mobility and capacity, as well as low-latency capabilities. He then assured that the 5G deployment would reduce running costs in corporate organisations, private and public institutions by 50%.
Preparatory to deployment of 5G network in Nigeria, the Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Dr. Isa Ali Ibrahim, not one to leave anything to chances in the wake of the health and safety concerns by Nigerians, has directed the NCC to publish an implementation roadmap for 5G roll out across the country with service roll-out obligations. The Commission has also been charged with the responsibility of developing robust regulatory instruments to address health-related issues for the successful roll-out of 5G, ensuring that the Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) use the precautionary principles at every turn. It is expected to increase performance and a wide range of new applications, including strengthening e-Health (telemedicine, remote surveillance, telesurgery). 
Also speaking about the gains of 5G, Chairman, Association of Licensed Telecom Operators of Nigeria (ALTON) Engineer Gbenga Adebayo, said: “In Q3 2020, the worldwide median download speed over 5G was 954% faster than over 4G while the median upload speed over 5G was 311% faster than 4G.
“5G is also expected to provide efficient support for larger numbers of connections, enabling the Internet of Things (IoT). According to OfCom, 5G offers greater capacity, allowing thousands of devices in a small area to be connected at the same time. 5G delivers improved data rates (up to 100 times faster than current mobile networks), supporting virtually instant access to services and applications, with network latency significantly reduced.
“In addition, it offers network slicing technology making it possible to dedicate a unique part of a 5G network for a particular service.
“5G is expected to see a greater number of small cells (low powered base stations that can be mounted on buildings and street furniture) and will require wider deployment of full-fibre broadband infrastructure.”
Drawing from the foregoing, the especial strength of concern with 5G deployment is that it will use a higher intensity RF wave than the previous mobile network standards. This means that 5G will employ higher frequencies than previous ‘G’ networks and greater bandwidth which will enable users to transfer wireless data faster. But then, distinction should be drawn between ionizing and non-ionizing radiation. On the one hand, ionizing radiation, like the one emitted by X-rays, has enormous capacity to damage human cells, and is known to be carcinogenic (that is, it has the potential of cause cancer and other health-related diseases. However, all RF fields, including those used by 5G, are non-ionizing waves and have not been known to have the ability to alter the molecular structure in human cell. Thus, it is safe conclude that even though 5G will eventually use much higher frequencies, the ‘mmWave’ spectrum is still well within the remit of some extensive safety tests and independent reports covering the effects of RF signals.